The Carolina Hurricanes head into the second half of the season in first place in the Southeast Division, a position they’ve held since mid-October after getting off to a fast start. Through 41 games, the club has 20 wins and 43 points, numbers similar to last year at the halfway mark when the totals were 21 wins and 46 points. As we all know, the Canes missed the postseason after finishing with just 88 points. How Carolina finishes off the second half of the year will be exciting to watch as the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference standings remain close.
The following are the top 10 storylines halfway through the 2007-08 season:
1. Fast start: The Canes bolted to an 11-4-3 record five weeks into the season to take a double-digit point lead in the Southeast Division. Among the highlights were a win at Ottawa, a team that was the most dominating in hockey in October, and a 6-2 home win against Buffalo. Carolina registered at least one point in 14 of its first 18 games as the highest scoring team in the NHL. Remember, teams that get off to quick starts in October and November usually make the playoffs in this sport.
2. Injuries: Carolina has lost more than 100 man-games so far, many of them of the serious variety. After starting last year without Cory Stillman and Frank Kaberle (shoulder surgeries), the Canes have lost Justin Williams for the rest of the year with a knee injury, while Scott Walker was sidelined for 17 games with a torso injury, Andrew Ladd 16 (ankle) and Mike Commodore 12 (finger). Niclas Wallin has also missed a combined 11 games with various injuries. On a positive note, the Hurricanes got lucky when Erik Cole missed just four games in mid-November after crashing into Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun.
3. Justin Williams: How do the Canes attempt to replace Williams, who is out 4-6 months with surgery on his injured left knee? Williams scored 31 and 33 goals in each of the last two workhorse seasons, not missing a game. He’s also a pest in front of the net on the power play, where he scored 12 of his goals last season. Williams also led the Canes in game-winning goals a season ago.
4. Power play: The NHL’s worst unit a season ago saved the Canes in the first two months of the season, when they were close to the top of the league with the man advantage, converting 25 percent. Carolina scored at least one power-play goal in 17 of its first 22 games, getting three or more four times. With injuries, especially to Williams, the Canes have now dropped to 10th at 18.9 percent. Carolina has struggled with just eight power-play goals in its last 14 games, a mark that must pick up in order to make the playoffs.
5. Jim Rutherford: The two-time general manager of the year since 2002 has been relatively quiet so far, but how much longer can the Canes maintain their present pace before Rutherford pulls the trigger on a deal. He’s been shopping for a puck-moving defenseman, an enforcer, and now must consider a replacement for Williams’ offensive prowess. Rutherford has been clutch before heading into January, February and March. In 2002, he traded for Bret Hedican, Kevin Weekes and Kevyn Adams en route to a Cup final run, then in the 2006 Cup championship season, added Doug Weight and Mark Recchi in a pair of shrewd moves.
6. Penalty kill: Without a doubt, the most abysmal part of Carolina’s game so far. The Canes are last in the league overall in this category -- and worse yet -- last at the RBC Center. And a lot of the goals have come in short notice, meaning blown assignments have been a bigger issue than work ethic or scheme. Once again, the loss of Williams has been felt in this area, along with Chad LaRose moving up to a top line because of early-season injuries.
7. Matt Cullen: A big cheer went up amongst Carolina Hurricanes’ fans when Rutherford traded for Cullen this offseason, returning the third-line center to a place where he scored 25 goals two seasons ago. And Cullen hasn’t disappointed, pumping up a dormant power-play on the point while netting 37 points in 39 games. The center is sidelined now with a concussion, but once Cullen returns he’s sure to shatter his career-high point total of 49 with the Canes during the 2006 Cup season. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
8. Goaltending: Cam Ward lost 25 pounds this offseason and started like gangbusters, but has slowed considerably since, returning to his average form of 2006-07. The Canes have given up the most goals in the NHL, but not all of it can be attributed to Ward and John Grahame. However, both must improve over the final 41 games for the Canes to make another Cup run. Both stand-up guys would be the first to agree with that assessment.
9. Eric Staal: Sure, Staal leads the Canes with 20 goals, but he’s on pace to match last year’s point total of 70. Carolina brass and fans were hoping to see the 100-point center that emerged two seasons ago, not another 70-pointer. Staal has been hot lately, so he still could catch fire in the second-half of the season. Staal is tied with Cory Stillman with a team-leading eight power-play goals and four game winners.
10. Solid Stillman: If the Canes had to pick an All-Star at this point it would have to be Stillman, who started the season on the shelf after a freak car accident, but has rebounded as Carolina’s only point-a-game player. The left winger has 18 goals on just 94 shots to rank among the league leaders in shooting percentage. His quick recovery from a recent knee injury was a major plus for an already injury-riddled squad.
Honorable mention: Dennis Seidenberg’s team-leading plus-10; Glen Wesley’s continued solid play at age 39; Chad LaRose’s determination and fire.